Bad news equals fake news? Not here, says Charles Chong

Deputy Speaker Charles Chong at the new public hearing room in Parliament House where the Select Committee he chairs will be hearing views on fake news. Previous public hearings were held in a smaller room in the Old Parliament House.
Deputy Speaker Charles Chong at the new public hearing room in Parliament House where the Select Committee he chairs will be hearing views on fake news. Previous public hearings were held in a smaller room in the Old Parliament House.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Chairman of Select Committee to tackle issue says 'reasonable man test' will help sieve out falsehoods

It is "a tempting proposition" for politicians to define all news detrimental to them as fake, but such a move will not fly in Singapore, said Deputy Speaker Charles Chong.

"It is a definition that is great for politicians in power. But I don't think we can get away with that here," he said when talking about how other countries grapple with the problem of fake news.

Still, the challenge of defining fake news remains, as Singapore looks at tackling the growing problem - including by possibly enacting legislation.

One concern is that steps taken may end up restricting diversity of views as well as penalising inaccurate speech made unintentionally.

To address this, Mr Chong sees the need for a "reasonable person test" so that one can make a judgment call on whether a falsehood is deliberate or not.

There is no better way to find out this "reasonable man standard" than by consulting the public, Mr Chong said in an interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

To this end, a Select Committee, chaired by Mr Chong, was set up last month to recommend how Singapore can tackle fake news - which can range from "rumour mongering" at the coffee shop to sophisticated state-sponsored disinformation campaigns with nefarious aims to harm Singapore, said Mr Chong.

 
 

Convening a Select Committee to scrutinise a subject is a rarely used procedure. The last time was 22 years ago, in 1996, when one such committee was set up to verify the healthcare subsidy of polyclinics and hospitals.

The Select Committee on fake news has received more than 20 submissions so far and will conduct public hearings in the second half of March.

Mr Chong, also MP for Punggol East, said he hopes to hear from technology and media firms on how they conduct fact-checking to detect inaccuracies.

He added that he intends to invite tech giants Google and Facebook or media companies which have yet to send their submissions to give their views. ST has contacted Google and Facebook for comments but has yet to hear from them as of press time.

Mr Chong said he has asked his committee members to canvass for more views. Just 20 submissions are hardly enough for two weeks of hearings of around eight hours per day.

The call for submissions ends by Feb 28, and the committee will meet on March 5 to review the submissions and decide who should testify at the public hearings.

Committee member Rahayu Mahzam, an MP for Jurong GRC, said she needs to double her efforts to get more views. "I have been telling my friends (that) it doesn't have to be a well-researched paper. An experiential account can be useful for us to identify a range of views too," she said.

Fellow committee member Seah Kian Peng, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, said: "Falsehoods affect all of us. The more submissions and feedback we get, the better we can come up with recommendations."

Besides invitations, the committee can also issue subpoenas, legally compelling someone to attend the hearings and give testimony.

However, Mr Chong said issuing subpoenas is counter-productive, and does not foresee a need for it.

He said the committee is trying to gather a broad spectrum of views, noting the 10-member committee reflects a diversity of views in itself.

It is made up of seven MPs from the ruling People's Action Party, one from the Workers' Party (WP), one Nominated MP and Mr Chong, the chairman.A decision is reached through a majority vote.

Mr Chong recalled being worried about the WP's position as none of its MPs spoke during the parliamentary debate on the formation of the Select Committee. But the proposal received unanimous support from the other bench in the end.

"When it came to it, (the WP's) position was made quite clear - fake news is a problem. It is a problem that should have bipartisan support," Mr Chong said.

WP's Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, who is on the committee, had previously said the party shares the concern that falsehoods can undermine national security and the political process.

Ultimately, fake news affects everyone, said Mr Chong, who spoke to ST in a new public hearing room in Parliament House where the committee will be hearing views on fake news. Previous public hearings were held in a smaller room in the Old Parliament House.

He said:"We want to make the whole process more transparent. With better public understanding, any policy that eventually comes about will be more effective."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2018, with the headline 'Bad news equals fake news? Not here, says Charles Chong'. Print Edition | Subscribe